Looking for a place to stretch your hard-earned dollar a little further? Baltimore may be the place.
The city was named one of the top five metropolitan areas for stretching salaries the furthest, according to a May study.
Salary.com, which conducted the study, ranked Baltimore third, behind New London, Conn. and Huntsville, Ala., among American cities where salaries measure up well against cost of living. At the bottom of the list - places where the average wage struggles against the cost of living - were New York, San Francisco and San Diego.
Cost comparison calculators, such as Salary.com, have become popular as people increasingly move.
The need to gauge the costs of various locations has become more important, especially with the great price swings in real estate of the past decade or two.
Still, experts warn that other factors - desirability of a prospective job, climate, lifestyle and proximity to family and quality educational institutions - must be weighed in relocation decisions.
Annette Mattice, 28, moved to Annapolis from Tampa, Fla., during the first week in June. Weather and proximity to family were important factors in her move to Maryland.
Using cost-of-living estimates from Monster.com and Kforce.com, two employee placement services, Mattice concluded that the cities were about the same in their respective cost-of-living expenses.
"They made the cities seem similar, but that was inaccurate," she said. The tools didn't take into consideration expenses such as real estate, state tax and the steeper driver's license and car registration fees in Maryland, she said.
Michael Conte of RegionalOneSource, a Baltimore economic research company, said that areas that do well on cost-of-living comparisons typically have federal and state government and technology employers with higher salary structures.
For example, New London has the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Huntsville has a National Aeronautics and Space Administration center and the Baltimore area is home to the Social Security Administration and other government installations.
These facilities produce jobs that typically pay more than the average local wage.
Stephen Fuller, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia, believes that proximity to the nation's capital and its surrounding economy make Baltimore a desirable place to live, but less expensive than the Washington suburbs.
"You get more house for your dollar," Fuller said. "It's much more affordable than Washington."
The Internet has made it easier to compare costs of living, down to the smallest cities.
Online calculators, however, provide just one measure and could be influenced by other factors, such as whether public transportation can cut commuting costs or how the quality of schools affects where families might choose to live.
"It's an analytical tool to get a grasp on differences," said Sylvia Allegretto of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, whose Web site also offers a cost-of-living calculator.
This is the first time Salary.com published its study. Its Salary Value Index is based on a combination of factors, including compensation data, housing costs, cost-of-living data and employment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said Dan Malachowski, a company spokesman.
More sophisticated forms of comparison exist. However, the most accurate of them comes with a price.
"Those who want the best information will have to pay for it," said Michael S. Gillie, senior vice president for business development for the Economic Research Institute of Redmond, Wash., which provides compensation information for public and private companies.
Quarterly cost-of-living indexes for 300 cities are sold by the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association-the Council for Community and Economic Research, formed in 1961 by several chambers of commerce as a resource.
A detailed comparison between two cities costs $7.95. Its calculations include the costs of housing, health care, transportation, goods and services.
Where salaries go farthest
1. New London, Conn.
2. Huntsville, Ala.
4. Harrisburg, Pa.
5. Tulsa, Okla.
1. New York City
2. San Francisco
3. Stamford, Conn.
4. San Jose, Calif.
5. San Diego